New parents wonder about setting a good sleep routine for babies so we asked Christabel Majendie, the sleep expert for natural mattress company Naturalmat, to give us her insight and advice
Sleep is the primary activity of the brain during early development.
The high proportion of time spent asleep, both in children and adults, shows the importance of this activity for both physical and mental health. As one sleep expert put it: “If sleep does not serve an absolutely vital function, then it is the biggest mistake the evolutionary process has ever made,” (Rechtschaffen, 1998). By the age of two years, your child will have spent more time asleep than they will awake, with an average of 54% of their time asleep. In pre-school children, this divide of sleep-wake time is roughly equal and then drops to 40% in school age children.
Evidence suggests that poor sleep habits from an early age are linked to long-term sleep problems, so setting good sleep habits in children is vital. Lack of sleep has been linked to a number of physical and mental health problems in children. Reduced sleep is associated with childhood obesity, depression, hyperactivity and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). It has also been linked to poor academic performance, daytime sleepiness, problems with alertness and concentration and increased rates of absenteeism in school.
Our circadian rhythm, or body clock, controls when we sleep and the duration of our sleep. This circadian rhythm starts to develop around six weeks of age and is not fully developed until the age of two. Newborn babies have irregular sleeping patterns, ranging from 10.5 to 18 hours across the day and night, with sleep periods lasting anything from a few minutes to several hours, spending between one and three hours awake. By six months, time spent asleep at night increases, with about 50% of babies sleeping through the night and about 90% of 12 month olds achieving this milestone.
Average sleep durations can give an idea of what to aim for at different age groups; however, it’s important to remember each individual differs on how much sleep they need and when they sleep so there is no fixed recommended amount. The key is to be aware of your child’s daytime behaviour and how it is affected by lack of sleep.
Recommended sleep durations by the American Academy of Sleep Medicine (AASM)
Age Group Average Sleep Duration (including naps)
4-12 months 12-16 hours
1-2 years 11-14 hours
3-5 years 10-13 hours
Newborns and babies (0-1 years)
Babies need to learn to fall asleep independently at bedtime. If they learn this important step, they will learn to self-soothe and get themselves back to sleep on their own when they wake during the night. This skill of learning to fall asleep independently and self-soothing is not an innate ability. To encourage this, put your baby to bed when sleepy but not when asleep. It is important to understand your child’s sign’s of sleepiness: these might be fussing, crying, rubbing their eyes, or individual gestures. Remember to position a baby on their back, according to guidelines, to reduce the risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) – sometimes known as “cot death”.
As your baby’s circadian rhythm starts to develop, exposure to light and noise during the day, together with some stimulating activities, can encourage them to stay awake in daylight hours. Equally, you can encourage your baby to sleep more at night by reducing noise and light before and during bedtime and establishing a relaxing bedtime routine. With a regular bedtime routine, your baby will start to learn “sleep onset associations”. This means they will begin to associate certain activities with going to bed and falling asleep, and these associations will set off the physiological processes needed for sleep. Remember that these sleep habits take time to establish but you are aiming for the long term. Sleep can be disrupted by teething, illness, and separation anxiety in older babies.
Toddlers and pre-schoolers (1-5 years)
As your bby gets older, the same rules apply; maintain a bedtime routine to encourage relaxation. Daytime naps should be consistent (most toddlers have given up their second nap by 18 months) but not too close to bedtime. Maintain a consistent bedroom environment through the night, every night; if your child wakes in the night and something in the environment has changed from when they nodded off, this will be confusing, so consider having a dark room or just a small nightlight andreducing noise.
Common sleep problems include:
- Resisting bedtime
- Night fears
- Night awakenings
These problems are due to the development of the child’s imagination, cognitive and social skills, separation anxiety and the drive for autonomy. In addition, the move from cot to bed, more advanced motor development, and their ability to be able to get out of bed can create problems. Consistent boundaries for bedtime behaviour need to be established and you need to talk this through with your child, even before you think they understand.
In pre-schoolers, rewarding behaviour with stickers and reward charts is a great way to reinforce a good bedtime routine. Problems at bedtime and during the night might be a stress response, so take into account events going on at home or in the child’s social environment.